Expert Viewpoint

3 Ways to Interrupt the Vicious 'Math is Too Hard' Cycle with Technology

How Teachers Can Rebuild Students' Confidence in Math

Math is important for the future of our students and society. Math provides a strong foundation for a variety of fields and is especially needed for careers and future solutions in STEM. Solutions to some of the world’s most important challenges like climate change and the pandemic depend on STEM. And, according to the Brookings Institution, by 2025, there will be 3.5 million STEM jobs open in the U.S. alone. We must ensure that people who could offer positive contributions in STEM fields aren’t disengaging with math or feeling like “math is too hard” because of their early educational experiences.

For some students, they experience struggles early on in the subject of math — they may not grasp a certain foundational concept, or they face challenges with more difficult subject matter. This may cause them to become disenchanted with the subject and, in some cases, they begin to develop thoughts like, “math is too hard,” or, “I’m just not good at math.” This vicious cycle can lead to more struggles and, often, lasting negative feelings about math that can negatively impact their futures.

Research has shown us that many students — even those who graduate high school and go on to a higher education institution — feel anxious about math. According to a recent New York Times report, “up to 30 percent of people report moderate to high levels of math anxiety,” and this anxiety has been observed in children as young as 6.

With the right interventions, educators can help students — even those who have developed negative feelings about math, to rebuild their confidence and learn to love math. To do this, we need to interrupt the vicious “math is too hard” cycle and provide opportunities for students to experience success. Innovative learning technology can be a useful tool to help educators interrupt this cycle and help students rebuild confidence. We can catch students before they fall behind or become disengaged, discover where they need help, and offer targeted, individual practice with the right technology tools.

In my role at DigitalEd, an advanced digital learning company, I work with more than 300 colleges and universities around the world, to make learning experiences better for STEM students. Working with these institutions and their students has allowed me to gain a unique perspective on how technology can help rebuild student confidence in math. Following are three ways technology can help:

1. Providing Students with Immediate, Meaningful Feedback in Low-Stakes Environments Can Help Educators Catch When Students Are Not Understanding Material

Technology that allows students to learn by doing while receiving immediate, meaningful feedback can help educators catch students before they fall behind. A student may not realize that they don’t understand the material until they receive a low grade on a quiz or a test. By that time, the student may have more ground to make up. With learning technology, educators can get students to complete questions during a lesson or try problems frequently before a test or quiz while receiving immediate feedback on how they did on that question set. Automatically graded opportunities to test their understanding of material in a low-stakes way, allow students to realize earlier when they don’t understand a concept. Advanced digital learning technology can offer students information on where they went wrong and what they could do differently. Frequent opportunities to practice in a low-stakes environment, while receiving immediate, meaningful feedback can help educators to catch students who aren’t understanding material earlier.

2. Adaptive Technology Can Help Provide More Equitable Educational Experiences

Learning technology can help adapt to individual students and allow them to move through the material in different ways. Personalized learning tools available for K–12 students like the MAP Accelerator offered by Khan Academy and NWEA can help support more equitable educational experiences for students. There is often confusion between equality and equity in education. Equality is giving everyone the same experience. To achieve equity, we need to provide experiences that are personalized to individual needs. Students can receive targeted practice lessons based on where they specifically need help with adaptive technology instead of having to move in lockstep with a class. Instead of having one track that everyone goes through we can use technology to offer adaptive learning paths. A student can receive more practice or move on to new questions based on how they do. By learning in this personalized way, students don’t get bored when they understand a concept and can receive support where they need help. This ultimately helps keep students engaged by making sure they’re not encountering too much failure without support and challenging students when they’re ready to move on to new material.

3. Modernizing Tests and Quizzes with Technology Can Improve Students’ Experiences and Allow Them to Show What They Know

Modernizing assessments is another way we can help students to rebuild their confidence and re-engage with math. We need to move beyond the standard multiple-choice questions to asking questions that really assess what they know and how they got to their answers. Learning technology can support a variety of types of questions that allow students to show their work and explain their thinking. Innovative educators are incorporating written and oral exams in STEM subjects that allow students to share how they came to an answer. In addition to supporting a variety of question types, technology can allow for a personalized experience when taking a test or quiz. For example, the questions can adapt to the student. If a student gets three questions wrong in a row, the student might want to give up. With learning technology, we can recognize where a student is struggling and offer a different question. Much like in lessons that adapt, students can move through branches of adaptive questions in assessments.

To help students rebuild confidence in math we need to offer learning experiences that support them as individuals in adaptive ways. Allowing students to see how they’re doing with immediate, meaningful feedback on problems, offering adaptive learning paths, and modernizing assessments, can help students rebuild confidence and re-engage with math.

Adaptive learning technology can allow educators to provide tailored learning experiences for individual students in ways that weren’t possible before. By embracing technology that allows for personalized paths and lessons we can better support learners. Learning technology can be a helpful tool for educators as they work to help students rebuild their confidence and even learn to love math.

Additional Resources for Educators

About the Author

Louise Krmpotic is Vice President, Educational Enterprise at DigitalEd, where she is responsible for the strategic vision of the customer experience and the development of DigitalEd’s digital content. An expert in online learning, Louise has more than 20 years of experience in educational technology, specializing in STEM subjects.